It’s hardly a hot take that scuba diving – like countless other sports – remains a male-dominated field, but leave it to Ehdaa Al Barwani to change the narrative, one dive at a time. The first and only female dive instructor from Oman, she earned her PADI Divemaster certification in 2018, but found herself in the spotlight last year after spontaneously taking a dive in traditional Omani attire.
Her mission? To showcase the symbiotic relationship between her culture and ocean health, while inspiring others to join her efforts towards marine conservation. Today, she’s the founder of Muscat-based dive centre Aura Divers and often likened to a mermaid, a nickname she refers to as “endearing”. A candid conversation with this pioneering woman in honour of World Ocean Day, today, brought with it plenty of takeaways. Here are our favourites.
Spontaneity pays off.
“I have a confession about my dive in Omani attire: I didn’t plan the photos as much as people think. It was supposed to be a little series for Instagram, but I didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it did. I had two dives scheduled that day and only an hour in between. One of my students just happened to be a photographer, so I asked if he could take a few photos, but I didn’t have a set plan or anything – we just went with it. We jumped in, he took a few shots, and it was time for the second dive by the time I came back up. I didn’t have time to change, so I got my students ready and jumped back into the water for the second dive.”
Omani attire is surprisingly versatile.
“Omani clothing is made to be versatile. Traditionally, women wore it while making fishing nets, they wore it while farming – it was a part of their daily lives. You can get the fabric to be thick enough to stay warm, but the beauty of Oman is it’s warm and we don’t have too many currents. The seas are very calm most of the time, so it wasn’t really a challenge swimming in those clothes. They were actually really comfortable – I didn’t even realise that I had an elaborate dress on. In fact, I was there, chopping away at a net I spotted.”
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
“There are strewn pieces of wood, plastic, and netting in the ocean and on the roads – there’s a lot of construction happening here in Oman, and wood that can be utilised is thrown out. My idea is to utilise these pieces in different sections of my boat, turning them into something that we can enjoy, that we can use. The boat came out of necessity. I own a dive centre and rent out boats, but I need one that’s comfortable for women. I need a boat with a hardtop and an all-female crew as well as a place for them to change. If I’m catering to women – especially Omani women – they need to feel safe. These are the little things that will encourage them to try diving.”
The term ‘female entrepreneur’ isn’t always sexist.
“We’re still governed by our traditions and family values, and men and women have very set roles to play in society. In my case, terms like ‘female diver’ or ‘female entrepreneur’ help create a community, a safe space for women who are interested in scuba diving, but uncomfortable doing so around men. I understand women who’d rather keep gender out of their accomplishments, but here in Oman – where it takes courage for women to move away from what’s expected of them – it’s essential.”
We all come from water.
“I once read that the umbilical sac is composed of salty water, so humans quite literally come from water – those are your surroundings, which is why babies are quite comfortable in the water. The panic sets in much later in life because we’ve been away from it for so long. That’s why exposure to bodies of water early in life is a must, but not enough people are. I mean, the majority of my local students have no knowledge of swimming and are quite afraid of the water. They’ve just never been exposed to water, you know? I was lucky enough to go to a private school, where I learned how to swim, which is such a privilege – that doesn’t escape me.”
Fear amongst first-time divers is normal.
“Swimming underwater does feel claustrophobic, as contradictory as that sounds – it’s all blue, especially if you go really deep. There’s almost a sense of being lost in space, but there is a little trick that helps: see where your bubbles go because they always go up. I suggest diving in shallow locations at first. Most dives are done in the morning and, with the sun shining through the water, you can see all the colours of the coral, the surface of the water, and the seabed if you need to – it helps. Go slowly, and chances are you’ll be so enthralled by everything that you’ll forget you’re going deeper. But fear is very normal, so start by snorkelling.”
The region boasts beautiful dive sites.
“It’s only when I got a job in Salalah that I realised that, unlike other Gulf countries, there were no female dive instructors in Oman. That’s when I decided to encourage more women to come into diving because they don’t know what they’re missing. Red Sea aside, Oman has the most beautiful dive sites in the Gulf. We have the Daymaniyat Islands, a natural reserve, and Bandar Al Khayran, which is still untouched. These places are so pristine, so gorgeous. But if the pandemic ended tomorrow, I’d go diving in the Red Sea. I’ve heard the visibility is phenomenal!”
How you dive affects your environmental impact.
“I teach PADI, which is heavily focused on sustainable diving. Its Project AWARE movement, for example, is rooted in education on ocean protection. And it’s because of how I was taught that I’ve implemented this aspect in my own teaching. Everything my divemaster taught me was about minimising one’s impact on the surroundings – swimming with your hands close to your body so you don’t hit anything, ensuring your fins are nice and high so you don’t damage coral reefs. Then there are the bigger things, like using cotton nets because nylon doesn’t disintegrate.”
Plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050.
“It’s not a great statistic, is it? It tells us exactly where we’re going. And when I talk about conservation, I don’t mean that we need to get to a point where there is no plastic – we’re so far down this path where every other thing we use is made out of plastic, right? But what we can do – and should do – is minimise the damage. The damage has been done, but all we can do now is slow down. Hopefully, we’ll get to a point in the future where we can get rid of it completely.”
You don’t have to dive to make a difference.
“There are different ways in which you can contribute to marine health – you can monitor your carbon footprint and track how much single-use plastic you consume. You can also opt for reef-safe sunblock, volunteer for beach clean-up sessions, and remember to be mindful of where you dispose of your rubbish. In Oman, we take the car to go the shortest of distances, so maybe cycle if you’re close by or walk to the corner store once or twice a week? There’s also this idea that, as a small population, our actions don’t make an impact. But that’s just not true – every bit helps.”